Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/16/2008 01:44:00 AM
Panther Revival: From Nearly Dead to a No. 4 Seed
Levance Fields, who had six assists Saturday night, is one of the nation's steadier hands at the point.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
NEW YORK -- It was 86 days ago, on Dec. 20 of a young and promising season, that Pitt upset an undefeated Duke team here at Madison Square Garden. Junior point guard Levance Fields hit what would go down as one of the most cold-blooded shots of the year, a step-back three-pointer with 4.7 seconds left in overtime, to beat the Blue Devils 65-64. It established the Panthers as a legitimate top-10 team -- they jumped from No. 11 to No. 6 in the next Associated Press poll -- but coach Jamie Dixon called it "the most bittersweet night in my coaching career."
The reason: senior forward Mike Cook, who might have finished as the team's second-leading scorer, had crumpled to the floor during the win with a torn ACL, lost for the season. There was speculation that after beating Duke, the rest would be downhill for the hobbled Panthers. What happened nine days later in their next game only strengthened that theory: Fields fractured his left foot in an 80-55 loss to Dayton and did not return until Feb. 15. The basketball gods were being especially cruel to Pitt -- said Fields, "We were mad, and we didn't understand why things were happening to us like that" -- and did not relent even after Fields was back in the fold. By Feb. 24, Pitt had fallen to 7-7 in conference play, all the way out of the polls, and on the fringe of NCAA tournament bracket projections.
So what does one make of the scene at the Garden late Saturday night, after Pitt's fourth win in four days to take the Big East tournament title as a No. 7 seed? There was Fields, dribbling out the clock on a 74-65 win over Georgetown in the championship game, then launching the ball skyward before his teammates, including Cook, mobbed him on the floor. And there was junior forward Sam Young, the tourney's MVP after scoring 16 points in the finale (and 70 since Wednesday), soaking in the celebration. Young said later that it "felt like I just won a million dollars."
What the Panthers had done was return to their comfort zone on 7th Avenue and 32nd Street and revive their season, going on a surprise run that may elevate them all the way to a No. 4 seed in the NCAAs when the field is announced Sunday night. With this Big East tourney crown, the win over Duke, and the argument that their 26-9 record would be 28-7 or even 29-6 had Fields not been sidelined for a month and a half, Pitt has a compelling case to jump onto the bracket's fourth line. Such a position would have seemed unfathomable as of a week ago.
This rise was not built on a new style of play, but rather a return to the blue-collar identity that had faded during the Panthers' swoon. On Saturday against the Hoyas, that grittiness was on full display: Pitt barreled its way to the foul line for 44 attempts compared to Georgetown's nine, and the Panthers won the offensive rebounding battle 19-7, with freshman forward DeJuan Blair grabbing 10 on his own. Young even had three blocks -- all of Roy Hibbert shots -- to go with his MVP-clinching night. "For whatever reason, I didn't think we were playing as aggressive as we needed to, say 10 games ago," said Dixon. "But when we got all our guys back, we have just been more physical, more aggressive, and just more like we normally are, I mean, more like Pitt."
At the center of this renaissance is Fields, the stocky Brooklyn floor general who earned 13 attempts at the charity stripe en route to scoring 10 points. He may never get mentioned in the same breath as North Carolina's Ty Lawson, Texas' D.J. Augustin or UCLA's Darren Collison, but Fields is one of the nation's steadier hands at the point. Over four games in the Big East tournament, he had 22 assists against just four turnovers -- an incredible 5.5-to-1 ratio -- making it clear just how much better Pitt is when Fields is running the show.
While standing outside of his locker room around midnight, with a piece of the championship net stuck behind his right ear, Fields mentioned that he had the option to heal for the remainder of this season rather than return in February. "I knew the risks and consequences of sitting out," he said, "but I chose to come back even earlier than projected, and that turned out to be a good thing."
Good indeed, for without Fields this hometown party would not have been possible. The question now is, was this celebration just that -- a nice streak of wins in a friendly setting for a team heavily populated with New York-area players -- and nothing more?
The Big East tournament title game is not new territory for Pitt; it has reached the final round in seven of the past eight years. Nor is the NCAA tournament a foreign place; the Panthers have been in the dance for each of the past six seasons. What they haven't managed to do this decade, however, is make it past the Sweet 16. The possibility here is that this Pitt team is uniquely on the upswing, haven already taken its beating from the basketball gods and built itself back into a contender. This time, they left the Garden with no bittersweet emotions, only hope that their best work is still ahead.
Personally, I hope that the committee doesn't move Pitt that high. In 2006, the Syracuse run in the BET moved them from bubble talk to a 5-seed - much higher than they should have been. In the NCAAs, they then lost to an undervalued Texas A&M team seeded 12th.
The difference here is obviously that Pitt is a much tougher team than that 'Cuse squad. And with the soft bubble this year, you have to think that the Panthers won't get stuck with a sleeper on the 13-seed line.
Honestly, whether they earn a 4-seed or a 5-seed, there will be little difference in quality of opponent. Here's hoping that wherever they end up, they can make another deep run in a much more important tournament.